The moving of mountains
September 16th, 2012
Carole Itter is a sculptor, here an instructor at Emily Carr, and a writer, but in 2004 she published the posthumous work of her daughter, Lara Gilbert, in I Might Be Nothing: Journal Writing. During her brief life, Lara wrote in her journal about her struggles with drugs and depression, and allegations of sexual abuse. Itter edited the collection of her daughter’s writing, and written a foreword and afterword for the book. This review of I Might Be Nothing originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of BC BookWorld.
“I wish the roots of happiness and sadness were fully understood,” wrote Lara Gilbert in St. Paul’s psychiatric wing in 1993, “it’s frustrating not knowing why I have no faith in this world while most other people do.
“My personal belief is that they are deluded into ignoring the plain truth: this planet is in a mess and there is so much more misery than joy. The only way a person can live day by day contentedly is by ‘overlooking’ the pain around them.”
The year before, on her 20th birthday, Lara Gilbert wrote, “Daddy who did what he knew was wrong, would hurt, would frighten and confuse me, did it anyway because he couldn’t control his feelings, impulses, sex, sex, sex. Dad who kissed me on the lips today as he said Goodbye and Happy 20th, who then moved his lips down to my neck and shoulder and left a red blotchy mark there.”
Having participated in a therapy program at the Vancouver Incest and Sexual Abuse Clinic, Lara Gilbert experimented at being “a damn fine junkie whore” on the Downtown Eastside while excelling at her studies (Honours Biochemistry) at UBC.
In 1994, she wrote, “I want to put my hand into the fiery pink of the sunset. It’s so beautiful. But then, everything’s fine, everything’s tolerable, because I have Ativan. My psychiatrist gave me six tablets for the week to help deal with the cravings for heroin, desipramine, any drug at all.”
Lara Gilbert took her life on October 7, 1995. A student of pharmacology, she overdosed after several previous attempts at suicide. Nine years later her mother, Carole Itter, has published eight years of journal excerpts as I Might Be Nothing: Journal Writing (Trafford). There is an afterword and an introduction by Itter in which she states, “I did not suspect any abuse, and had I known, I would have moved mountains to stop it.”
Lara Gilbert grew up in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Precociously literate, she was a gifted writer and academic who endured “dreaded” poetry readings by her estranged father and her parents’ peers.
She developed her own imaginary friends and language in a world she called Kawiakee. At 15 she wrote, “From the outside, my life seems perfect. But the deeper you go, the scarier and lonelier it gets.”
The father of this brilliant but dramatically depressive narrator gradually emerges from the shadows of Lara Gilbert’s memory as a threatening figure, and there are additional allegations of sexual exploitation by the girl’s paternal grandfather.
Lara Gilbert received psychiatric diagnoses including unipolar depression, dissociative disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and possible borderline personality disorder. The extent to which Lara Gilbert’s confessions are true or false must be gauged by each individual reader.
As well, the degree to which 3,200 pages of journal writing has been abridged and edited by Itter and others cannot be apparent. Itter has included the contents of one letter addressed to her in 1992, marked Never Sent, in which Lara Gilbert was going to alert her mother to incest. (Within the journal Lara Gilbert also claims a male nurse at Vancouver General Hospital’s Psychiatric Assessment Unit once sexually assaulted her.)
Just as Anne Frank’s diary has been criticized by some for alleged revision by her father, it’s impossible to retrospectively verify every detail of a deceased person’s journal or letters. However I Might Be Nothing exists as a chilling piece of posthumous literature, an educational work more than an accusatory one.
This is a tragic tale to which too many women will be able to relate. We know the ending. The journey entails trying to fathom the beginning.
“Fear is more real than the world around us,” Lara Gilbert wrote at age 18. Both naïve and sophisticated, her wrenching journal evokes her confusion and her tormented struggles with Sylvia Plath-like poignancy. It has the potential to outlast most of the writing done by her father—and possibly this constitutes a form of revenge.
For mental health professionals, I Might Be Nothing: Journal Writing will rank with Mark Vonnegut’s Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity and Jans Lars Jensen’s Nervous System as one of the most illuminating glimpses into mental anguish from B.C.
Essay Date: 2005